Narrative

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The goal of this article is to introduce the concept of narrative, and its use in the context of computer-based learning.

1 Definition

There is no universal definition of narrative. Indeed, the concept of narrative relates to many disciplines, such as linguistics, anthropology, psychology, litterature, aesthetics, etc. Despite of the invention of the term « narratology » in the sixties, which promoted the unification of the field, narratology now covers only a subset of what should be called the theories of narrative.

Some definitions of narrative are very broad and « tolerant ». For example, some definitions would consider a cook recipe or a flat recount of all what happened to an individual in one day as narratives. On the other side of the scale, some approaches of narrative would be very prescriptive, by proposing a fixed framework of narrative, such as the three act form in theater. Finally, some definitions would restrict narratives to the recount of event from the past, while other would not put this restriction, including live forms of narratives such as improvisational forms of drama.

We have chosen the definition proposed by Jean-Michel Adam, which characterizes the narrative with six criteria:

  • a narrative involves a succession of actions (a description of a landscape is not a narrative);
  • a narrative involves at least one character, even if this character is not human (animal, object);
  • a narrative concerns a transformation from one initial state to a final state;
  • Unity of action: the actions is organized into a bigger unit, which forms a whole.
  • Causality: actions are causing other actions. Actions are not just following each other but are a consequences of each others.
  • Final evaluation: a narrative intends to exhibit a point of view, either explicitely (in the morale) or implicitely. In that sense, a narrative is a communication device.

2 Main related concepts

Narrative can be studied from various perspectives, that are sketched below.


A classical distinction is made between fiction and non fiction narratives. Narrative can represent events which really happened as in history (non fiction) or events which are imagined by somebody (fiction). This distinction is however not so sharp. A narrative of real events is not neutral, it is also an artificial construction, by the simple fact that some events are chosen, some not, and by the fact that these choices are part of a whole intention (last criterion above).

A narrative can be studied as an artefact (a film, a book, an adventure game) or as a psychological construction. In this latter view, narrative is not just a cultural artefact humans use to communicate with each other but it is a fundamental way in which human make sense of the world (Bruner 1991).

3 Narrative and computer

As a medium, the computer has been naturally used to convey stories. From narratives displayed non interactively to sophisticated storytelling environments, there is a large spectrum of applications of the concept of narrative in computer. These applications are displayed hereafter, from the less interactive to the most interactive.

3.1 Non interactive narratives

  • DVD: Fiction films stored in a digital format are the most basic form of narrative on the computer.
  • Stories embedded in a larger multimedia application
  • Machinima

3.2 Interactive fictions

3.3 Adventure games

3.4 Interactive Drama

3.5 Social simulations

3.6 Authoring applications

4 Role of narrative in learning

There exists several uses of narratives for learning in general, and educational technologies in particular.

4.1 Narrative as a discourse

4.2 Emotional impact

4.3 Dialogical learning

5 Examples

6 Open questions

7 References

Bruner, J. S. (1991). The Narrative Construction of Reality. Critical Inquiry, 18:1, 1-21.